I don’t know why I had to spend my last hundred dollars on the Godzilla suit. Who needs explanations? You want an explanation? Not a dime left in my pockets. That’s a start. You still want answers? To my conscience it seemed the thing to do. Something about this boring town needed enlivening. Let me back up.
Oh sure, there was Chuckles the Clown, but he wasn’t lively or reliable. Good enough when the Chamber of Commerce or Blatzo Beer needed a cheap gigolo to press the flesh for them. Oh yes, even I had taken balloons from Chuckles’ spotless, white-gloved hand during the town-wide flea market, or the fourth of July parade. When I’d come into town to do my banking, I’d see him stopping traffic with a sandwich board hanging from his slumped shoulders – not a posture of good humor either – his white face paint melting in the hot sun, pigeons dancing around his oversized, yellow-raincoat sheen-shiny boots. The lengths some men go to schill.
People had grown so accustomed to Chuckles, his balloons in one hand and his gaudy advertisement leaflets in the other, that they began to look the other way. It was then that I took the clown by the elbow and dragged him to the coffeeshop on the corner. I don’t need any coffee, he said, it makes me too nervous. When he was too nervous he didn’t twirl the balloons properly – the coffee made him squeeze too hard, you didn’t feel the rhythm of the balloon’s skin, you didn’t fondle it lovingly, like you would the cheek of an Arabian princess. You popped the balloon and the kids would squeal, which hurt his ears to boot – something he seemed overly sensitive about, especially with him being a clown for a living. I mean, the screaming goes with the turf. Lots of people hate clowns.
I squeezed his shoulder (it felt as soft as a roll of toilet paper) and told him it was my treat, so he shrugged and muttered OK. We sat down for a half hour of conversation. Chuckles pardoned himself and wiped the face paint around his lips, so he could sip from the cup properly. The coffee found its way into the wrinkles at the corners of his mouth, forming tiny, polluted rivulets against the white, satin laminate of his skin paint.
“What do you want with me?” Chuckles said half nervously. “I’m not supposed to take a break till lunch…”
“You’re prostituting yourself, Chuckles.”
He stared at me.
“You’re, you’re…well, look at you!”
“Hey man, it’s just a living. I could be driving a delivery truck like I used to.” He leaned forward. “Listen, if you had a talent for twisting balloons like I do, you’d be pulling on the size 56 waist pants yourself, my friend.”
I couldn’t persuade Chuckles to give up advertising. He was firm on that point. We twirled our coffee spoons while debating the matter. The clown maintained firmly that entertainment goes hand in hand with business. What would television be without commercials? He said.
“A lot better than it is today.”
“No, it wouldn’t,” said Chuckles.“Admit it, the billboards on the interstate actually made driving more interesting, especially the shiny ones for the casinos”. He had had enough of those folks who bitched about noise pollution and the uglification of our landscapes. “That’s a sixties thing,” he bellowed. “It’s old. It’s tired.” To him, such attitudes were like trying to talk through a tinny, battery powered megaphone. You’d rant and rave “Nyah Nyah Nyuck” and sound like a fast food drive-through speaker. Nobody understood that line anymore. If it was once true, it was no longer. Complain, complain. Honk your horn. Blah. People had learned to appreciate their billboards, drill hammers, the sounds of congested traffic, even plastic toy clown horns. Or they had tuned into their own noises, that of the walkman, the watchman, the CDman, the Gameman. “Hey, if this is noise pollution, then the other’s just as much noise pollution.”
Maybe he had a point. He got up to leave. “This coffee’s already getting to me,” he said. I begged him to stay and finish his Danish.
“What you don’t comprehend, my balloon twisting friend, is that the whole game is a trap.”
“How you mean?”
“You’ve hit upon an important point, that being, the seamless connection between the personal commodity and the commercial society, how one needs the other. But you’re taking it for granted. Nothing’s for granted. The sun could stop setting this afternoon, just hang there for days, and everything would be different.”
His spoon fell off the saucer to the table with a dead clang. “You’re losing me.”
“Look, you’re in a clown suit, you’re wearing a sign for Blatzo Beer.”
“Yeah, what of it?”
“Voila! The entertainer, and the hand that feeds him.”
“Right. Like the newspaper needs the advertiser or he don’t make ends meet.”
“Sure, that’s the plan, that’s the game. But it’s a trap.”
“You’re talking in circles.”
“It’s a trap because any alternative is unfathomable to you. Chuckles, the point is that people only want you, the clown. The balloons in the shapes of starving horses. That’s all. They don’t NEED this other crap.” I snatched his stack of Blatzo ads. In a fit of bravado I tore them apart.
“Hey! They’ll dock my pay!”
“THEY may not realize it, you may not recognize it, but the people only want YOU. If they could only be weaned from the commercial tit, we’d wake up. It would be a new day.” “All your talk, it hurts my head!” Chuckles got up, dropped a buck towards the tip, and went back to work. I paid the rest of the bill, which left me with 100 dollars even.
It was the same with Wrath the stray dog. He’d once been the life of the town, but now folks were used to him. He lived in the center square, everybody’s pal, old and tired, napping at the feet of a cement Union war vet, General John B. McDougal of the 52nd Pennsylvania Volunteers, famous for leading a charge in the peach orchard at Gettysburg.
Wrath was named for his master, a Mr. Rathbone, who had been so cruel to the animal (he beat the pup with an oily boot) that the neighbors hatched a conspiracy to kidnap the dog, hide it away for six months till Rathbone forgot what the dog looked like, being drunk most of the time and his memory not being what it used to be; so that after the hiatus, they let the dog free from its fenced yard across town. At first, the dog started to work its way back to its original home, but by the time it got to the town square on Main Street, he hesitated, where he must have mused the stupidity of canine instinct, and promptly parked his ass next to a wooden bench, for good. The grocers at Thriftway made sure he was fed, and that was the end of it.
I reached in my pocket and pulled out my rent check. Wrath looked dissapointed when it wasn’t a treat. I stared at the check and wondered what would happen to me when it bounced. I sat on the bench next to the mutt. Dogs have their own problems to be sure, but Wrath, couldn’t know what it’s like to lose your wife and your job. They don’t know what it’s like to run out of cigarettes at midnight. The dog lay on its side quietly panting, tongue bouncing off the grassblades. He was too tired to disagree, I guess. I bent over and patted his ribs gently, then walked the other direction down State Street towards the Cappy’s Costume Store.
Inside the store, a senile old man, Cappy himself, was leaning against the display case, a navy blue railroad conductor’s hat on his head.
“G’afternoon, Conductor!” I shouted cheerfully. He liked to be called Conductor.
He made like he couldn’t understand what I said, then bowed hesitantly.
“Aye! Ahoy mate!” he bellowed. He wasn’t a consistent conductor. He liked to speak like a sailor. “Costumes are 10% off today!”
“You have a cigarette?”
“Wha! Speak up! When you’re talkin’ to a 100 year old man, you gotta raise your voice.”
The costume store had a “used” smell to it – a smell in common with flea market stalls, antique stores, and thrift stores. The walls were lined with two rows of racks, one above the other. Red satin gowns hung next to Gorilla suits and Elvis costumes. In the display case were grotesque masks. Gargoyles were “in”, and many of the rubber masks had pointed ears and monkey features. They seemed to be laughing at me, winking at the conductor. The shop was larger than you’d expect a costume store to be. At the back was a tiny dressing room with a flimsy curtain on a rod for privacy. The Conductor had wheeled from behind the case and stood close to my face so he could hear.
“Whaddya want? I could be napping, mate.”
What did I want? I didn’t know. Maybe Chuckles the Clown had influenced my thinking, so that whatever hidden motives brought me to the store had dissipated in the knowledge that whatever I tried to do out of the ordinary would be ineffective, even ridiculous.
He went into the back of the store, whistling a shanty. I sat on a stool and felt in my pocket for my money. 100 bucks was all that was left. That and the rent check, which I was going to drop off at the landlord’s office, but which I knew would bounce. I ripped it up right there, letting its pieces scuttle to the dirty floor tiles. What’s the use? I thought. If the check bounces, my 100 bucks will be gone. I’ll be charged, fined, and in the end evicted anyway.
The store contained stifling air. Sickening pools of sunlight flooded through the front windows onto the smudged green tiles. The uniforms and costumes reeked of usedness. Sweaty, musty, crusty, dusty, old. That was it. The store was old. A relic from the post-war days, when party hats were novel, plastic new and shiny, when people were happy and squeaky and had things to celebrate with authentic conviction. A Mickey Rooney world. When you’d feel guilty if you didn’t line up for the Independence Day parade. When you’d lift off your cap to salute the ol’ red white and blue as it stomped by, held aloft in the steely grip of a pink-faced Irish Catholic legionnaire. The store costumes reeked with this cellophane temporality, worn, discredited, yet unabashedly a reminder of the bygone, not able to die with dignity, taking the sword to the belly as the Romans did, or opening the veins when the enemies were heard to be on their way to the villa. No, the costumes couldn’t speak for themselves, they only clung to the hangers the way a blind man clings to the arm of his guide. Very still, they hung, not with the stillness of the hanged man, rather the rigidity of stale bread and crackers on a dusty shelf. You could hear amid this deathspace the hum of flourescent bulbs and whir of metallic fans. It was the kind of space that as a kid would have made me sick to my stomach, the kind of sick you get from driving in a sun-drenched car for too long. Even the memory of it was beginning to bring a quease to my gut. I had no desire to go back to these days, to the days of Charleston dresses and flappers or top hats, nor to the days of Marine uniforms, sexual repression, and plastic green St. Patty’s day hats. There wasn’t enough life left in this store to sustain itself – it was barely maintained by this 100 year old kook who couldn’t hear. Otherwise, without his limp support, it would likely cave in on itself, the cracked walls buckle and snap like peanut brittle, the fans grind to a rusty stop, the window glass would melt like cake icing, the clothes disintegrate to the touch.
Like a vision there appeared, in the back corner of the dinghy showroom, behind the gorilla suits and the tuxedos and the flapper dresses with their frilly feathered hats, something so rubbery and glorious: a man-sized Godzilla suit. Gadzooks! Godzilla. The fire breathing mutant monster. The dragonesque dinosaur who crushed Tokyo for breakfast, bathed in the Yellow Sea for lunch, and hunkered down to Yokohama for dinner. Godzilla the savior, the great leveler, the great equalizer! Godzilla’s yellow eyes glared at me judgementally. I approached the scaly hulk and tentatively lifted a finger to touch its giant front paw. I imagined myself inside it. Would I be able to breathe, to see, to grope my way through town looking out from its insides? I had to have it. The conductor trudged up beside me and tapped me on the shoulder.
“You like it?” he whispered.
I turned to him, half startled. Gristle and saliva loam was lodged around his lips. His eyes were globes of marble infected by broken tributaries of crimson.
“Yeah, I like it a lot. How much for Godzilla?”
“Oooooh….for that, eh?” He paused a moment and licked his thin lips. “Ooooh, this is a valuable item here, the Godzilla…”
I searched its underarms for a price tag. He must be operating the business at a loss, as a tax write-off maybe. But nobody would want this place when he was gone. The costumes were too old, too smelly, the store beyond repair. Every costume in the establishment was doomed. This was Godzilla’s last chance for survival. And this town needed nothing less than what he and I could offer it together. I felt as if the scattered deck of cards my life had become were falling into order like watching a film sequence in reverse.
He wanted 200 but seemed willing to deal.
“There’s a good gorilla suit over there I could let you have for 150. Right over there behind the mannikin. You’d look good as a hairy ape.”
I fished the hundred dollars from my pocket and laid it out on the counter. “This is all the money left to my name. I’ll give you 100 dollars for that Godzilla suit. But I want you to know that this is all the money left to my name. That’s it. There is no more money. Get it? You get it?”
He stared at the money and licked his spittly lip. Silence.
“I’ll tell you what,” he finally said, placing the tourniquet of a scarf on the counter next to the cash. “I’ll be a nice guy. I’ll take a loss on this deal, give you the damn costume for 100 dollars, right there. You oughta be ashamed, forcing me into this! That thing’s worth a couple hundred, easy.”
His fake generosity got to me. Sent me over the trench wall at last. I reached for the scarf and wrapped it behind his neck, pulling him firmly into the counter top, so that his stomach seemed sliced in half by the glass plane.
“I’m gonna speak, slow, so you can hear me. And I’m gonna speak loud so you catch every last word. I’m leaving this money on the table, and I’m going to go back there, put on that Godzilla suit, and walk out of this store. You got a fair deal here. And I want the shit to stop. No more bullshit. You’ve been bullshitting people for seventy-five years from behind this counter, and today, it’s going to stop. Just for the five minutes it takes me to get out of here, you’re going to shut your lips, take your money, and keep your bullshit stopped up in your throat. You’ve got your deal, Conductor. You’ve cleaned me out. Now shut up.”
He seemed to be less fearful than alarmed, but the point got through. Maybe it had happened before. A lot can happen in a hundred years. I let him go, feeling more than slightly guilty that I had just accosted a centenarian. He sank backwards, clutching a naked mannikin for support. The scarf still clinging to his uniform, he stared at the money counting it with his eyes.
I feel a lot better, I told myself as I climbed into the monster suit. Much better. More…monstrous. I emerged from the store larger, purer, with fire in my throat.
It was the children who came running up to me first, after walking strangely unnoticed to the middle of town, past Wrath who smiled at me benignly, winking as if to say, go for it, my man, but I’m too worn out to join you. But it was the children who squealed and yammered at my heels. I would turn around and they would scatter with shrieks of delight. We made a little pied piper’s parade that day, Godzilla and the little children.
You might think that they mollified me. You are wrong. The more I raged and flamed, the more I showered and scorched the earth with my flaming breath, the wilder they screamed, the more of them came to follow my tracks.
One of them pushed over a trashcan. He was a boy, somewhat husky, wearing burgundy jeans and a football jersey. After the trashcan, he bumped into a smaller boy, shoving him into a pile of Wrath’s doggy doo. Aint that the American way. Clear out, babies, the big boy’s c’mon on through. I saw this in front of me, and it bugged me. The children now surrounded me on all sides. I ran as best I could towards the bully boy in the football shirt. I growled at him. Loudly. At first he laughed with glee, but then upon seeing that I was determined to run him over with my large webbed feet, he turned to a frown. He was too fat to escape my lumbering pursuit, and I caught up with him at the steps of the borough hall, whacked him across the back of his grimy head with my paw. It startled more than hurt him. I bent down over his head, a menacing position for a child of his size to see above him, and growled again.
I really wish I had been able to breathe live flame at that moment. I so wanted to singe his hair the way a match curls a fresh wick with its blue heat. Instead I growled and growled. My roar wasn’t loud enough, an anticlimactic brow beating that turned the little snot’s face into a squishy ball of smiles. Enough was enough. So I sat on him.
“Ouch,” he yelped. “You’re hurting me.”
“How do you think that kid you knocked over feels you little tub of lard! How does it feel! To be a complete unknown!”
The point was made. I stood up. Crying, the boy wriggled away and shouted, “You’re nuts, Mister!” running home determined to bring back an older brother or parent.
My temper had caused other children to shy away. People were looking at me disapprovingly. Some were laughing. Whispers, pointed fingers. What WAS he doing in that Godzilla outfit? I thought I knew, but now, in public, sweating from the rubber skin that wouldn’t breathe, I was losing confidence, scrambling to grip the cliff edge. I thought I heard the old Conductor behind me, rattling his cane, tugging at a cop’s shirtsleeve, pointing out his assailant. I was, at that point, easy to pick out in the crowd. Soon the bully boy’s old man would be home from work. He’d find me out too. When you’re Godzilla, there’s no place to hide. You are too big to disappear.
Across the street stood Chuckles the Clown, his Blatzo flyers and brochures drooping at his side. He knew who the real Godzilla was. He watched me spin around, waving my arms at the people, chasing the children away. Come help me, Chuckles, I shouted. Together we can turn this city around. Just you and me. I can’t do it myself. I don’t have the skills, the know-how. These people need help. Teamwork, that’s what’ll turn them around. This suit’s really hot, I can’t think clearly by myself. Teamwork, Chuckles. Forego the chains. Cut loose and join the club. I need you. With my fire and your balloons, the town will never be threatened by boredom again. Let’s teach these kids how to have fun. Free them from themselves and their petty appetites, their complacency. Liberation, Chuckles. Up, up and away in our beautiful balloon. We’ll teach the dog some new tricks, incorporate him into our street show. Please Chuckles, join the team. I’m losing the game, Chuckles. Chuckles…a little innovation. A little spark. A sock in the stomach once in a while. Some spit shine and a smile. We’ll hand out flowers in the spring. Juggle bowling pins on the weekends. We’ll bring song back to this nowheresville. C’mon Chuckles, save me, save these kids. Save yourself! Before I burn it down with my death ray.
Chuckles hailed the cop, who was followed by Cappy, and whispered something in his ear, pointing at me. Why wasn’t he pointing up? Godzilla is tall. Godzilla is big. Godzilla wades through harbors and crushes into buildings. Why, as I rage, are they covering their hands over their faces?
First published in Metal Scratches, 2012